A few weeks ago, my fiancé and I were hanging out with two of our friends, another couple (let’s call them Dave and Tania), at our apartment. The clock was pushing 2am, the alcohol was flowing, and three of us – me, my fiancé, and Dave, were sitting on the couch while Tania went into the kitchen to grab a snack.
I’m not sure what the subject of our drunken conversation was as the three of us sat on the couch waiting for Tania to come back. We were probably watching YouTube videos or playing a messy game of Jenga when, all of a sudden, Tania walked back into the room – a clear look of terror in her eyes.
She was standing in the doorway to our kitchen, waving her arms around with her eyes wide. Her mouth was moving but no sound was coming out. Almost like she was drowning, she started gasping for air and pointing to her mouth, her eyes getting bigger and her gestures more aggressive.
I had never seen it in person before, but I knew what was happening.
She was choking.
The three of us – me, my fiancé, and her boyfriend, sat there silently on the couch trying to make sense of what was happening. I think about two seconds went by, though they felt like minutes. Finally, the dots connected. I turned to my fiancé and shouted, “Sean! Go!” I was pointing at Tania, clearly giving Sean an order to do the Heimlich Maneuver.
Sean jumped up, grabbed Tania, and pumped his fists three or four times into her stomach. Whatever she was choking on was dislodged, and she quickly gulped in air and breathed a sigh of relief.
A few minutes later (after making sure she was OK), we were already laughing about it and lounging, all four of us on the couch. I’m not sure whether Dave felt embarrassed because he didn’t give her the Heimlich Maneuver himself, or whether he was still a bit shocked and trying to make sense of what had happened. I know Tania was grateful for Sean’s quick reaction.
And I just sat there, smiling and wondering to myself,
“Why in the world, in the face of this life-or-death situation, was my response to tell my fiancé to do something about it?”
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging is a book written by war journalist Sebastian Junger and published in 2016. In it, he argues that modern society has produced many benefits: we have access to life-saving medicine, we don’t have to kill or even come into contact with the origins of our food, and most of us have some form of reliable shelter.
In general, those who live in modern societies have had many of life’s physical demands removed. For the first time in human history, most of us rarely have to come face-to-face with our own mortality. Rather than regularly confronting life-or-death situations, many of us can live our whole lives and never know how we might respond to such challenges.
Junger argues that this disconnection from our own mortality, and the realities of modern life that have allowed us to live in general safety and comfort, have taken away something essential from our existence.
For many of us, voluntarily joining the military is our last option to live a life closer to the realities of our ancestors. Some other options, also highly unlikely scenarios, are living in a war zone, surviving a natural disaster, or working in a high-stress, high-danger job like law enforcement, firefighting, or emergency medicine.
His book, while focused primarily on wartime and military service, examines what modern society loses when we progress technologically, politically, or economically. Above all, he examines what we lose with more safety and security and what we might gain by throwing them away.
1. Humans are meant to live communally and contribute to a group. Most modern societies deprive us of that opportunity.
Junger argues that one of the most valuable aspects of wartime – and why many soldiers mysteriously find themselves missing war when they return home – is that it forces you to almost completely enmesh yourself with your fellow soldiers or platoon. “War Makes You an Animal” is the title of the second chapter, yet perhaps it would be more aptly called, “War Makes You Truly Human.”
High-stress, life-or-death situations that are common in war-time force us to completely subvert our self-interest in service to others. Common struggle unites us and we subconsciously know that our own well-being is tied to the well-being of the group.
Junger writes, “Self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss.”
He makes us wonder: is this type of empathy and group cohesion possible in modern, capitalist societies that often encourage self-interest, competition, and material wealth above all else?
“First agriculture, and then industry, changed two fundamental things about the human experience. The accumulation of personal property allowed people to make more and more individualistic choices about their lives, and those choices unavoidably diminished group efforts toward a common good. And as society modernized, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group. A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day—or an entire life—mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.”
War may be brutal, but for many, it returns them to a pre-civilized human experience where they can feel, as the late Marina Keegan calls it, the opposite of lonely.
2. Destruction begets equality.
Many of us envision life-or-death scenarios, such as a militarized attack, an earthquake, or a car pile-up, as complete chaos marked by reeling individuals acting on the ethos of “every man for himself.” We often think that coming face-to-face with our own mortality makes us fearful, selfish, and masochistic. In reality, Junger argues, it’s the opposite:
“The one thing that might be said for societal collapse is that – for a while at least – everyone is equal. Disasters…create a ‘community of sufferers’ that allows individuals to experience an immensely reassuring connection to others. As people come together to face an existential threat…class differences are temporarily erased, income disparities become irrelevant, race is overlooked, and individuals are assessed simply by what they are willing to do for the group. It is a kind of fleeting social utopia that…is enormously gratifying to the average person and downright therapeutic to people suffering from mental illness.”
It’s hard for most of us to imagine this sort of social utopia because we are lightyears away from actually experiencing it. In the modern, Western world, we are so far removed from the consequences of our actions that “existential crises” feel more distant and philosophical than immediate and tangible.
Many of us have no idea what we would do when facing death because very few of us are ever given the chance. Because most threats to our existence are not immediate – they are more often political or economic – our fear drives us apart rather than binds us together in a struggle for the common good.
Yet, we can still find examples of differences of class, race, and identity disappearing when one is immediately faced with a threat: think of the homeless man that pulled people out of burning cars in Colorado or the Malian immigrant that saved the child dangling from that balcony in Paris.
As both of these men explained, they didn’t have time to think. They saw a threat to their fellow humans, and they reacted.
Crises, as Junger argues, have a way of making us forget our petty differences and remember our humanity.
3. Courage is not possible without a threat, and it often looks different for men and women.
From a young age, many of us are taught the values of courage, loyalty, and selflessness. Yet, many of us fail to grasp this fact: the extent to which we are able to demonstrate courage is directly correlated with the level of threat we are able and willing to face.
“What you would risk dying for—and for whom—is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss.”
For those of us who are tested – who, at some point, find ourselves in a life-or-death situation, our reactions are often codified by our gender. Junger writes that, in a study based on a century of records in the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, more than 90 percent of spontaneous rescues of strangers were performed by men.
The researchers theorized that “greater upper-body strength and a predominantly male personality trait known as ‘impulsive sensation seeking’ lead men to overwhelmingly dominate this form of extreme caretaking.”
Women, on the other hand, tend to “act heroically within their own moral universe, regardless of whether anyone else knows about it.” For example, women donate more kidneys to nonrelatives than men do. Women also outnumber men in the Righteous Among the Nations records that represent non-Jews who risked their lives to help Jews during the Holocaust.
Junger explains, “The greater empathic concern women demonstrate for others may lead them to take positions on moral or social issues that men are less likely to concern themselves with.” Women demonstrate something called “moral courage” that requires less brute strength and more long-term, thoughtful convictions.
Interestingly, in single-sex groups (groups of all women or all men), these roles hold up but are not determined by gender. In other words, in groups of all women, women are just as likely as men to physically and impulsively react to save another. Likewise, in all-male crises, men will step into the “female” role and be the moral compass for the group.
I’m not sure this explains my clear impulse to demand that my fiancé perform the Heimlich on our friend. But it does help explain why, in a mixed-gender group, I felt more comfortable putting the onus of heroism on my very athletic and physically competent male partner.
“For whom, or what, are you willing to die?”
Like many important thinkers, Junger puts aspects of our society under the microscope and challenges us to think about the implications of how we choose to – individually and collectively – organize our lives. Too many societies fit his sterile description of safety and security that too often correlates with disconnection, loneliness, and depression.
At the same time, it is important to remember that many modern societies do not take safety and security for granted. Even in “developed” countries, many people lack the food and shelter that Junger assumes is so abundant and widespread. We need to be careful not to idealize the past, especially when there are so many people still living in it.
Our great moral task, then, is to consider what aspects of “progress” actually help us and which hold us back. Junger shows us that, in our quest to create a better world – one free from violence, warfare, disaster, and tragedy – we may be depriving ourselves of the experiences that make us feel most alive.